How did we get here 4 (cont.)

And thus the cast was set. Over the next 5-7 years, these replacement players focused on their own internal power struggle, which often manifested itself in getting more headcounts, of managing bigger teams and budgets. They strive to own as many product lines as possible. Once they owned a product, even a bad one, they feel they can take the time to make it successful. Software development in those days still have long multi-year schedule, and so the product's success or failure is a long time away. And so there was virtually no "garbage collection" of bad ideas or bad execution of products, since no one is willing to kill their own product and teams as that's just suicide. Instead, the focus was on presentation of dreams and phantom projections of success, and Powerpoints and Flash demos were the tools of choice, not working codes in users' hands.

And more of this new generation's energy is internally focused on their competition for promotion, rather than on their marketplace competitor. The energy and focus is no longer on the products, on innovation, on creativity of the product, on beating your product's competitors. Where once most people and teams in Microsoft believe in winning in the marketplace, and even in innovations and changing the world, the creativity is now on how to out maneuvering the internal competition, of padding your resume to get up on top and reap the big salary, bonuses, and stock options. Thus Microsoft became increasingly isolated from market forces, helped by the fact that money keep coming in from Windows and Office, and so there's no need to be lean. As long as your product's promise can't be validated, your power and position is mostly safe. And of course, everyone knows that in Microsoft we get three chances (or versions) to get things right anyway, right?


How did we get here 3 (cont.)

And so it is that a lot of those who likes to do, to build, to ship left the company. They were the risk takers, the big thinkers, the ones with the most imagination. These were the lifeblood of the company, who were often the mavericks that got things done.

But the bench is deep, and so when these guys left, a vacuum was formed. Of those who took advantage of this vacuum, a lot of the folks were still very smart people. But the culture and belief system of those who filled the vacuum were different than those who left. These people are more conservative. They preferred the security of Microsoft's backing in their product development, rather than risking their personal asset. They enjoyed the feeling of power, of being in charge of large teams of people, more so than the feeling of being up front blazing trail. The replacement players, in other words, weren't as hungry, as risk-taking, as "just do it" as those who they replaced. They were stronger believer in power of the institution, rather than the power of the individual, of personal will. And being institutional players themselves, they started to think more about politics and internal struggle to gain power over each other.


How did we get here 2 (cont.)

During the late 90's, when the dotcom boom was in full swing, there was a "graduating" class of employees that were ready to leave because they had been there from the mid 80's or early 90's. They've been there for at least five years, which means their initial stock options were fully vested, plus a majority of the subsequent options as well. Their MSFT options have grown so much since they first joined, that by now they have a sizable portfolio. In other words, they have the financial independence to pursue their dreams. And remember most of these employees are quite young still, often single, most child-less, and are still very idealistic and have many ideas about what they want to do.

At the same time, they've been climbing the career ladder for a while, and the "game" is getting to be a bit old. They think they have learned enough from BillG and elite of the company, and want to be their own boss, to get more control of the direction of their dream. At the same time, the company is getting bigger, more hierarchical, more complicated; things are taking longer to get done, more people to persuade and influence, more executives who wants to step in with their opinion. So naturally they yearn for something smaller, something they can have that direct connection. Something they can "make it so."

And oh, the desktop application/OS metaphors was reaching maturation, and the challenge is more in incremental improvement rather than in revolutionary changes. All the while, the new game in town, the Internet, well let's just say that most of them didn't think Microsoft got it, and won't be as strong in that arena as it was in OS and office productivity. And at the same time, the paradigm shifted from complicated COM/DCOM to the simplicities of HTTP, HTML, and Javascript. The distribution problem of retail and OEM relationship melted away, and anyone can setup a distribution channel to sell their service and software by just setting up shop. All they needed was a good product, something new and pioneering, and these group of folks aren't short on ideas at all. They have in fact many ideas that weren't getting used at Microsoft because the upper executives don't really "get it."

So they started to think about doing a startup, and with free VC money on the street, and your friend telling you how great it is to just do instead of going to endless meetings, you want to feel that sense of adventure again. You made the jump.


How did we get here?

What happened? How did it get from one of the best place to work to one perceived so negatively? That's the question that most often get asked by the outsiders, as have been asked recently by Business Week, Forbes, Financial Times and others. There are also the cynics who would say that the dirty deeds done by the Evil Empire has finally caught up to it. But that doesn't explain as much as assign it to karma.

The explanation to this question, as with explanation to most complex phenomenon, is multi layered. There is no single answer, and as such, no single cure. But I think we can identify many contributing factors, and perhaps it's through these discussion that some clue may emerge on how to fix the culture.

The easiest one to identify, I think, is size. The company has grown in size by leaps and bound. If you hold the view as I do that Microsoft once consisted of some of the smartest people in the industry, the crème of the crop in intelligence and in ambition, then the law of average dictates that no matter what you do, the growth in size are is going to dillute your advantage away. As the company grows bigger, the average performance of the employee pool is going to approach the industry workface average, because you simply can't hog the top 60,000 (or is it 70,000?) employees in a free market economy, like you can with the top 500. And even if you manage to do it, the 59,999-th employee is not nearly as good as the top performing employee of your company, and so the average/median is bound to go down.

Even in the most idealistic case, the "best" people in the company will sort themselves to the top, to be the executives, the architects, the visionaries, the strategists, and the least capable ones are the ones in positions that require the least intelligence or effectiveness.

If only that was the case.



Ah, the first post. Let me introduce myself: I'm a long time veteran of Microsoft. I've been here more than 10 years, which, incidentally, are getting to be somewhat unusual, for reasons that you'll find out from this blog.

During this period, I've seen Microsoft transformed from a hungry and energetic environment that wanted to change the world, into an institution that often are content with "well, that's good enough".

It is my frustration with this undesirable direction change that led me to start this blog. I harbor no resentment against Microsoft; in fact, I'm grateful for what it has done for me and my family. But I also am increasingly unhappy about what the company has become, and for the first time in a decade, have started considering leaving the company.

The entries to follow on this blog is a story of my thoughts and reaction to this development, and my continual idealistic search for the good that I know still exists in small doses in the company.

It is my hope that through this blog that I can provide insights from the inside, reveal what may be broken, and contribute ideas on how to turn the downward trend around.